Review: Mester’s Final Concerts with the Louisville Orchestra Colorful and Lyrical

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(Photo credit: Louisville Orchestra)

The first Louisville Orchestra concert of 2016 also represented Jorge Mester’s penultimate concert as director emeritus of the Louisville Orchestra. Before the concert, Brad Broecker (LO CEO 2006-2009), who was crucial in securing the Maestro’s return to Louisville as music director following several tumultuous years, honored Mester’s two terms as music director.

Though Mester’s earliest and longest term in Louisville centered around the ground-breaking First Edition recordings, his last statement in official capacity was reserved and thoughtful: pairing the beloved Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff with Bohuslav Martinů’s imaginative Symphony No. 6 (Zoltan Kolday’s Dances of Galánta will be added to the Saturday evening concert).

If you’re unsure of Martinů’s legitimacy, a quick look at his musical pedigree should dissuade any doubt: Mozart taught Ignaz von Seyfried, who taught Brahms. Brahms mentored Dvorak who taught Josef Suk, who was Martinů’s first and only composition teacher. Martinů was a professional violinist for most of his career, only turning to composition seriously in his thirties and writing his six symphonies in his fifties, after emigrating to America. Add to this over a dozen ballet scores, over a dozen operas and hundreds of solo and chamber works, Martinů’s output reaches the 400 mark, and legitimacy, quickly.

Martinů’s sixth symphony, subtitled Fantasies symphoniques (“Fantastical symphonies”), was written after his recovery from a serious head injury in the early 1950s. He had taken a four year hiatus from his fifth symphony (first recorded by the Louisville Orchestra), and returned to the symphonic genre with a new idea – a free-form, fantasy for orchestra. This stream-of-consciousness approach wasn’t new to music, but for a neo-classicalite like Martinů, not adhering to formulaic rigor was atypical.

Despite this lack of structure, the sixth symphony does return to familiar motives, most notably a whirling, curtain of sound heard at the beginning (reminiscent of insect buzzing), and a cryptic, four-note motive, first announced by the principal cello. Martinů’s symphony is colorful and rhythmically challenging. The latter only caused some minor problems for the orchestra, but the former suited the orchestra well. Strings were biting and also lyrical, woodwinds pristine and balanced, and the brass gave an impeccable performance. This symphony also gives you the rare treat of seeing tubist John DiCesare use a mute — you can’t miss it.

Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, like Martinů’s sixth symphony, was born out of recovery. For Rachmaninoff, in the form of recovery from severe depression and self-doubt after a tepid reception to his first symphony. For a modern audience, this concerto is one of the most enjoyed of Rachmaninoff’s. It bears all the hallmarks of a Rachmaninoff: undulating piano arpeggios under long, velvety melodies; tender and intimate solo passages; and athletic runs up and down the keyboard.

Soloist William Wolfram is a towering figure, broad shouldered and standing at around 6 foot, 5 inches (Rachmaninoff was just as tall). The adjectives “nimble” or “agile” wouldn’t typically describe someone like Wolfram, but his calm demeanour gave him the physical freedom to glide effortlessly across the keyboard. Wolfram is a decisive player, often pensive, with little showmanship. For the orchestra’s part, the long, lush melodies that permeate Rachmaninoff’s score felt natural and sincere.

Guest concertmaster Phillip Palermo, from the Indianapolis Symphony, joined the orchestra for Friday’s concert, and returns for the Saturday evening concert, which will also include Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galánta.
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Audio: Teddy Abrams and Jubilant Sykes on Bernstein’s Mass

Jubilant Sykes at WUOL

Leonard Bernstein composed Mass for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and commissioned by Kennedy’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. It was controversial at the time, taking the form of a Roman Catholic mass and interweaving new texts from Bernstein, Stephen Schwarz and even Paul Simon. Mass, a gigantic theatrical work, is an amalgamation of musical styles, from rock to blues to atonal. Jubilant Sykes, Grammy-nominated for his recording of Bernstein’s Mass with the Baltimore Symphony, is singing the role of Celebrant in the Louisville Orchestra‘s performance, with Teddy Abrams conducting, this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Both stopped by Classical 90.5 to talk with Daniel Gilliam about this complex and challenging work.

(Related: listen to a panel discussion on Bernstein’s Mass, moderated by Daniel Gilliam, with panelists Teddy Abrams, Cantor David Lipp and Father David Sanchez. Presented by the Center for Interfaith Relations and the Louisville Orchestra)

Teddy with Jubilant

Panel Discussion: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

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Join Daniel Gilliam as he moderates a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Interfaith Relations and the Louisville Orchestra on Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” and its spiritual implications. Panelists will include Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams, Cantor David Lipp from Adath Jeshurun and Father David Sanchez of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Butchertown.

September 17, 2015 at 5:30pm at the Mary Anderson Room, Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. This event is at capacity.
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Louisville Orchestra Season Finale Broadcast

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Classical 90.5 presents the final Louisville Orchestra concert from the 2014-15 season Thursday evening at 8 pm. The music, which is conducted by LO Music Director Teddy Abrams, begins with John Williams’ The Cowboys Overture, featuring music written for the 1972 film The Cowboys starring John Wayne. Abrams ends the program with his interpretation of the Symphony No. 5, Op. 67, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can read Daniel Gilliam’s review of the concert here)

The trio Time for Three – Nick Kendall, violin, Zach De Pue, violin and Ranaan Meyer, Double Bass – appear on the program also. TfT has been exciting audiences wherever they appear with their unique arrangements and grouping of instruments. Listen to Alan Brandt’s interview with the three musicians:

Review: Louisville Orchestra Closes 2014-15 Season with Time for Three

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(Photo credit LeAnn Mueller)

The Louisville Orchestra concludes its 2014-2015 season this week featuring Time for Three, John Williams’ The Cowboys overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 67.

The Cowboys overture is everything you want from a western film score and John Williams: driving string melodies, brass fanfares, evocative percussion and folksy woodwind tunes. The Louisville Orchestra played it as cleanly and effortlessly as any Hollywood studio orchestra.

Violinists Zachary DePue and Nicholas Kendall, and bassist Ranaan Meyer, collectively known as Time for Three, gave an electric performance of their signature arrangements that are filled with improvisation and jams. With no shortage of charisma and stage presence, the virtuosic trio was a crowd pleaser and didn’t shy away from engaging, even verbally, with the Thursday morning audience.

The set arranged and re-imagined several popular songs, from Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered “Hallelujah” and the bluegrass tune “Orange Blossom Special,” to Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” and an amalgam of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry me a River.” (Yes, you read that last phrase correctly.) The most successful arrangements involved the orchestra more than just as a backup band, as in Vittorio Monti’s Czardas, a Hungarian folk-inspired showpiece. The orchestra arrangement was colorful and supportive, but also fun for the ensemble. Concertmaster Michael Davis was even allowed to cut loose for a solo. The creative Barber/Timberlake mashup made eloquent use of the strings’ lyrical and percussive qualities. Other arrangements were less fulfilling, pushing the orchestra to an almost inaudible level in the background. This is something you can expect on a pops concert, but not during a mainstay subscription performance.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 isn’t a quiet one. It can be easily generalized as loud and vigorous, but hidden in the details are delicate, quiet moments. Playing loud is easy, playing soft is difficult, because the latter requires more refinement, if the music is to come across as cleanly, similar to edging the window sill instead of painting the wall with a roller. Playing loud takes care, too, and the orchestra or Abrams never lost control.

The orchestra created a seamless connection between the brash and subtle music, assured that even the details would stand out. Abrams’ tempo decisions were appropriately on the edge of too fast — the right place for Beethoven’s fifth. The final movement was triumphant and exhilarating, and speaking of details: the slight lingering on the third chord in the final movement’s opening fanfare (and its subsequent returns) was hair-raising.

The Louisville Orchestra, Time for Three and Teddy Abrams perform this program again on the final concert of the 2014-2015 Saturday at 8pm in Whitney Hall.